“We need to declare a moratorium on vaccines,” Judy Mikovits declared, not long ago, and not for the first time. “And I mean all vaccines.”
While vaccines are temporarily banned and undergoing further study, Mikovits asserted, the world will come to a realization. “We will show everyone that not only are vaccines not needed, but everyone’s health will be restored,” she promised her audience. “Everyone will have faith in their own natural God-given immunity.”
In the last several months, Mikovits has become an indisputable star in a set of overlapping worlds. She’s been both celebrated and pilloried for her claims about the dark motives of public health authorities, and she’s been able to tell her self-described life story—unjust persecution by the scientific establishment, banishment, ruin—to a wider audience than she probably ever could have imagined.
Mikovits is also, though, part of a movement with a deeper agenda—a hidden agenda, you might say, if you were feeling conspiratorial—which she is happy to expound on, in the right company.
During a talk in May, Mikovits discussed, in unusually frank terms, her years delivering testimony in the federal vaccine court, a court she’s variously referred to as “criminal” and “horribly corrupt,” and that she believes ultimately shouldn’t exist.
“It’s sham,” Mikovits declared during her lecture. “It’s not a court. The special masters [the judges appointed to hear cases in the vaccine court] just attack the witnesses and do character assassination of us.”
In fact, the federal vaccine court program was created to help people who believe they or their dependents were harmed by vaccines to get compensation from the government. Its very existence acknowledges that some of the millions of people who are vaccinated every year may suffer a side effect, and that we, as a society, should compensate them for it. Mikovits was once one of an army of expert witnesses who delivered scientific testimony to that court. Despite that, she told her audience, she believes that it’s a “kangaroo court”—and she promised that ending it is just the first step towards the real goal of eradicating vaccination altogether.
“Doctors get significant money to bully patients into these vaccines,” she claimed, falsely. “All should be liable for these crimes against humanity and the murder of these innocent men and women. We should convict these criminals in the CDC. You see them every night now—Tony Fauci, Robert Redfield.” (She was referring to Anthony Fauci, the nation’s foremost infectious disease expert and one of the more visible faces of the governmental response against the COVID-19 pandemic, and Redfield, the current director of the Centers for Disease Control.)
“Doctors get significant money to bully patients into these vaccines,” she claimed, falsely. “All should be liable for these crimes against humanity and the murder of these innocent men and women.”
Not coincidentally, Andrew Wakefield is also currently focused on the federal vaccine compensation system. Wakefield was the lead author on a now-retracted study falsely linking vaccines to autism, and is still one of the most revered figures in the anti-vax world. In the last few weeks, he’s been busily promoting a new film called 1986: The Act, about the passage of the 1986 National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act, which he views as a disastrous mistake.
These are heady times, not just for Mikovits and Wakefield, but for the broader anti-vaccine movement. Amid the ongoing devastation of the coronavirus pandemic and the promise of a COVID-19 vaccine—one experts worry could potentially be rushed into production, and thus subject to fear and suspicion and rejection from people who desperately need it—they see an opportunity to discredit the entire vaccine schedule, and the science behind it.
The goal appears to be nothing less than to undermine the basic functioning of the vaccine manufacture system at a time when we need it more urgently than ever. But a secondary goal is to be able to sue vaccine manufacturers in civil court again, which hasn’t been possible since the 1980s—and which could not only undermine the production of vaccines, but mean a staggering payday for many of the attorneys who make up the backbone of the anti-vaccine movement.
Justice is coming for vaccine makers, Mikovits, Wakefield and other anti-vaccine celebrities are promising their devoted fans. The vaccine system is teetering on the brink of collapse, they suggest. And with the COVID-19 vaccine projected for the near future, they clearly hope that now is the right time to persuade others that vaccines are fundamentally unsafe, and that resisting them is nothing less than humanity’s last stand.
In the meantime, though, the first part of this plan—inserting discredited science into an already overtaxed system and falsely linking vaccines with a variety of ailments—has already been underway for a long, long time.
“There’s no vaccine on the schedule for children that’s been tested safe,” Mikovits told the attendees of Autism One recently, shortly after telling them that there needed to be a total moratorium on “all” vaccines. “Or where the benefit outweighs the shot,” she added. “There literally is no shot on the schedule that works.”
Autism One is the largest anti-vaccine conference in the country; it’s usually held every spring at a bland chain hotel in the suburbs of Chicago. It’s a series of lectures where density and apparent scientific jargon can hide the utterly wild claims the presenters often make. Chiefly, those lectures tend to claim that vaccines are responsible for a variety of illnesses and ailments, including autism, and that autism is itself curable through one of a variety of fringe therapies. These therapies are, conveniently, made available in snaking exhibition halls throughout the building. The organization would say that it is not anti-vaccine; it calls itself “the world’s most scientific and cutting-edge international autism summit,” and the audience is generally full of worried parents looking for answers for their own children with autism. (I was thrown out last year, something that’s previously happened to several other journalists.)
Mikovits has been attending Autism One for years; she is a former chronic-fatigue researcher whose career in mainstream science ended in disgrace, and who has been reborn as a star in a scientific underworld powered by conspiracy and innuendo. She frequently insists she is not anti-vaccine, despite regularly repeating a variety of false anti-vaccine talking points and insisting that “all” vaccines currently on the medically recommended schedule are unsafe. And after years in the anti-vax world, she recently became a bona fide celebrity in the wider “medical freedom” movement—as well as among coronavirus truthers of all stripes—by starring in a viral film clip of what’s supposed to be a longer movie, Plandemic.
The 26-minute clip purported to show how Bill Gates, Anthony Fauci, and a variety of other members of the scientific Deep State created the coronavirus pandemic, and are profiting from depriving the world of cures. At the same time, curiously, the clip also seemed to claim coronavirus isn’t particularly serious, and could be cured if we all stopped getting vaccinated, didn’t wear masks—which Mikovits falsely claims “reactivate” the virus—and went to the beach more often, to be cured by the “healing microbes” in the sand and the water. (Separately, Mikovits has also touted Miracle Mineral Solution, a bogus miracle cure routinely recommended in the anti-vax and fringe natural health world that is, in reality, bleach.)
Though it’s full of outrageous, easily debunked falsehoods about Mikovits’ own checkered past, how the pandemic spread, and whether beach sand is a miraculous natural curative, it gave her career a dose of rocket fuel. Two books that Mikovits co-authored have become bestsellers since the clip went viral, and her claims are enjoying a new round of attention.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Autism One conference took place online this year. Mikovits was a featured speaker and appeared on several panels, along with a few other regular attendees, including Wakefield; a former CBS producer named Del Bigtree who produced, with Wakefield, a popular anti-vax movie called Vaxxed; and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a star of the environmental movement who’s turned into a public, vocal and combative vaccine skeptic.
As frequently happens at Autism One, claims about vaccines segued rather seamlessly into broader conspiracy theories. “We are going to be under surveillance from 5G that they’ve been installing,” Kennedy told the audience in his opening remarks. “Two million cell towers are going to monitor us.” Quarantine, he claimed, is an exercise “to train us in obedience and compliance.”
For her part, Mikovits made a welter of claims, both during a panel discussion and during her own talk, none of them backed up by any kind of scientific consensus. She said that the novel coronavirus is caused by inflammatory responses caused by vaccines, that vaccines are linked to anxiety disorders and psychosis, and that when scientific papers are retracted, “It’s not fraud at all, it’s that the government didn’t want it published.” That last claim is particularly germane to Mikovits, whose mainstream career ended when a study she co-authored, claiming the XMRV retrovirus causes chronic fatigue syndrome, was retracted. (In a major followup study, Mikovits was offered the opportunity to try replicate her findings and could not, conceding, “It’s simply not there.” This is a part of the story she no longer mentions publicly.)
Mikovits’ claims about vaccines and government corruption at Autism One aren’t surprising; what’s more interesting is what she’s been doing behind the scenes to promote them. As Mikovits told her audience, and has written in a book that she co-authored, she acted as an expert witness in several cases brought before a special vaccine court established under the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (NVICP), even as she was publicly transforming into a vaccine skeptic.
Mikovits’ frequent collaborator, in vaccine court and elsewhere, is a man named Frank Ruscetti, a former researcher at the National Cancer Institute. He co-wrote some of this expert testimony with her under the banner of a consulting firm they started together, MAR Consulting Inc. According to publicly available court records, Mikovits’ and Ruscetti’s work in these cases sought to show that vaccines are responsible for a wide variety of ailments, most of which have not actually been scientifically proven to be caused by vaccines. And in many of the cases where Mikovits and Ruscetti were involved, they did the plaintiffs in the cases no favors; Mikovits’ testimony, particularly, was frequently criticized for being unscientific or downright incoherent.
In one case, for instance, the pair submitted testimony supporting a woman who claimed in 2018 that the flu vaccine had given her chronic fatigue syndrome. In a decision denying the woman compensation, a judge ruled that Mikovits had provided “no basis or logical support” for some of her claims in testimony before the court and delivered medical opinions she wasn’t qualified to make, as she is not a medical doctor. Mikovits, the judge wrote, “muddies the waters by interjecting into the record statements that should not be given the weight of expert opinion.”
A judge ruled that Mikovits had provided “no basis or logical support” for some of her claims in testimony before the court.
In another case, filed in 2015, a woman claimed that the HPV vaccine had given her postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS, a syndrome that affects circulation) and skin rashes like eczema. The judge found that Mikovits had “glaring deficiencies with her professional history that in many other legal contexts would likely have led to her not being permitted to testify.” Her testimony, the judge, Brian H. Corocoran, wrote, was “largely unhelpful in resolving the claim in this case.”
“Although it is true that the topic upon which her opinion centered was complex,” Corcoran added, “involving a great deal of molecular biology and difficult scientific concepts, she presented an opinion that was in retrospect garbled, confusing, and ultimately shed almost no light on the question of whether the Petitioner’s POTS and eczema were vaccine-caused. Even Respondent’s experts, well-versed as they are in the same topics, could not make head or tail from her opinion.”
The judge also noted that, in another case, the court had written in a ruling that Mikovits had “developed a pattern of submitting substandard work.”
Mikovits made no mention of this in her talk at Autism One. Instead, she claimed that she and Ruscetti were banned from submitting expert testimony for inexplicable reasons.
“The courts, first they refused to pay us, which we didn’t really care about,” Mikovits told her Autism One audience. “We said, ‘Hey we don’t work for money.’ And they said, ‘If you hire Mikovits and Ruscetti in our cases we won’t pay anyone on the team doing the work and we’ll guarantee your client loses.'”
But they found a way around it, she added. Working with a small cadre of anti-vaccine lawyers, Mikovits said, they have been “ghostwriting” documents, apparently still trying to prove that vaccines are the hidden hand behind virtually every human ailment.
“We continue to help indirectly,” she told the Autism One audience. “We know the lawyers. We’ll help you find the attorneys. We ghostwrite these now. We’re all working together to get justice for the injured.”
“We know the lawyers. We’ll help you find the attorneys. We ghostwrite these now. We’re all working together to get justice for the injured.”
If Mikovits is truly “ghostwriting” anything that’s submitted to the vaccine injury court, even after being functionally barred from submitting expert testimony, that could undermine the credibility of a petitioner’s case, says Dorit Reiss. She’s a law professor at UC Hastings who writes frequently about vaccine policy issues. She points out that Mikovits’ claim doesn’t really make sense; cases in vaccine court require expert testimony on both sides. “If the court finds out that someone they consider not credible has written testimony for other experts, that would undermine the credibility of other experts. It’ll hurt the cases they testified on. Which isn’t always fair to the petitioners. The lawyers put together the case and the petitioner may not be aware of these complexities.”
But the claims Mikovits made about her work with—or against—the vaccine court are also part of a larger trend: After a number of years trying to bend the vaccine court system to their will, some anti-vaccine activists have decided that perhaps it’s better to destroy it entirely.
In the last few years, many of the major anti-vaccine groups have pivoted to arguing that the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act, which established the federal vaccine court, should be repealed or sharply curtailed, seeing it as the root of all evil, the original sin of the modern vaccine movement. Children’s Health Defense, Robert F. Kennedy’s euphemistically-named anti-vaccine advocacy group, wrote in 2019 that the NVICA has been an “unmitigated disaster,” claiming, among other things, that vaccines became less safe once consumers weren’t able to sue drug companies directly. (They also made the more sympathetic case that vaccine-injured children and their families often aren’t compensated enough, or at all.)
Andrew Wakefield, the father of the modern anti-vax movement, has lately been, like Mikovits, in the midst of a PR blitz focused on the evils of the program and the court. His new movie, a soapy drama about one fictional family’s fight against the vaccine court system, has been positioned to go viral; the film’s website also helpfully provides what it calls “social assets,” lurid quotes about vaccine dangers overlaid against numerous graphics: Anthony Fauci looking grim, crying babies, a resolute Robert F. Kennedy Jr., chin cupped in his hand.
“In my opinion, what the film reveals is premeditated, first degree murder,” Wakefield declared recently, at another panel discussion. “I urge people to watch it.”
“We’ve worked on about 10 to 15 cases in vaccine court,” Mikovits said, in a similar vein, during another recent anti-vax conference, The Truth About Vaccines 2020. “And we’ve found that court to be beyond corruption, to just pure evil.”
At first glance, it can be hard to understand why anti-vaccine activists, who claim that vaccines routinely injure people, would be interested in dismantling the court system that has been set up for those people to seek justice. But the history of the program helps to show why vaccine opponents have declared war on it.
The National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program was created during an emergency, according to Paul Offit, and the most important thing it did was to help “stop the bleeding.”
Offit is an attending physician in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and the director of CHOP’s Vaccine Education Center, as well as the author of several books about vaccine safety and science. (He’s also deeply, profoundly loathed by the anti-vaccine movement, because he writes frequently on why vaccines are vital and because he’s the co-inventor of the rotavirus vaccine. The feeling is mutual, he told VICE News. “I can’t stand these people. I think they’re bad for children.”)
Offit is one of countless scientists and medical experts who argue that the vaccine compensation program helped to save lives, because it helped end a situation where vaccine makers were in danger of being sued out of existence.
Throughout the 1980s, fueled in part by controversies over the safety of the DTP vaccine, lawsuits against drug companies who made vaccines began to skyrocket, from one in 1978 to 73 lawsuits in 1984. At the same time, the amounts demanded shot up, to $46 million from $10 million. “If the current trend continues,” a 1986 paper warned, “suits will pose an increasing threat to the availability of DTP vaccines in the United States.”
It seemed obvious that other vaccines would soon be at risk because of fears of lawsuits. “When civil litigation reigned against vaccine makers, you went from six pertussis manufacturers to one,” Offit said. “We were about to lose vaccines for American children. We went from 18 vaccine makers in 1980 to basically four today. Litigation was a big part of that. The vaccine court stopped the bleeding.”
“We went from 18 vaccine makers in 1980 to basically four today. Litigation was a big part of that. The vaccine court stopped the bleeding.”
Ronald Reagan signed the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Act in 1986—albeit with “serious reservations,” he said—and the compensation program it established came into existence about two years later.
Today, the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program is overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Justice, and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. The program established what’s called a “no-fault ” court system. It’s meant to ensure that people who believe they, their children, or their dependents have suffered an allergic reaction, seizures, a physical injury, or other serious health consequences as a result of a vaccine can get a measure of justice. But vaccine manufacturers don’t have to admit fault in these proceedings, and don’t pay the settlements: those come out of a trust fund, which is funded by a small tax on vaccines collected by the Treasury Department. Many of these cases are settled out of court. The ones that end up in a courtroom are heard by the federal Office of Special Masters—special masters are judges appointed to four-year terms—and are heard without a jury. (The special masters are appointed through a majority vote by the judges who serve on the United States Court of Federal Claims. The special masters have their own office within the Federal Claims court.)
Most litigants, though, never see the inside of a courtroom, because most vaccine injuries are actually settled by the government, according to Dorit Reiss.
“If you think your child was harmed by a vaccine, the first step is you submit to the Department of Health and Human Services, not the court,” Reiss, the law professor and expert in vaccine policy, told VICE News. “That unit reviews the case and decides if there’s reason to compensate. They either concede the case or settle it. Over 80 percent of the cases are compensated.”
In a settlement, the government denies that the vaccine caused the injury but agrees to pay a settlement anyway. In a concession, the government agrees that it’s more than 50 percent likely that the vaccine caused the injury. A lot of these concessions stem from so-called table injuries: illnesses, disabilities and adverse reactions, listed by vaccine, that the government has conceded can potentially be caused by vaccination.
The cases that make it to the federal vaccine court, then, are inherently tougher cases than the ones where the government has decided to concede. And the court that hears them is unusual too.
Special masters, Reiss explained, “are basically administrative law judges. We have thousands of them—for example, Social Security cases are heard by them. So are immigration appeals.”
The system is totally reliant on the testimony of experts, Reiss said. Each side produces expert testimony, and the special masters have to assess that testimony. “The court isn’t bound by the [traditional] rules of evidence,” she added. “Their approach is they let practically everything in, but they give it different weights. Experts who wouldn’t be considered credible in civil court, or hearsay, are both allowed.” That’s because the special masters, over their time on the bench, develop a body of specialized knowledge and are better equipped than a jury to assess what’s credible scientific evidence. It’s also part of trying to make the program more accessible for litigants.
“The law is designed to make the program generous,” Reiss said. “It may not feel that way to people in the program, but it’s designed that way.”
“The law is designed to make the program generous. It may not feel that way to people in the program, but it’s designed that way.”
But like many things that are government-run, Offit and Reiss agree, the system is flawed, antiquated and in desperate need of reform.
“There are things that desperately need to be fixed,” Reiss said. “We need more special masters. We need a longer statute of limitations. They need to raise the caps. They were set in 1986 and haven’t been raised since.” (For the death of a child, for instance, the maximum a family can expect is just $250,000 for pain and suffering. In injury cases, the court will pay what the government calls “a reasonable amount” for past and future non-reimbursable medical, custodial care, and rehabilitation costs, and related expenses, and there’s no limit on how much a litigant can be paid for that.)
A separate issue, according to Offit, is that there are, in his words, “a number of settlements that aren’t based on science at all.” That is, the court will sometimes pay compensation even when it’s not clear a vaccine caused the injury. The New York Times reported last year that, in its words, “about 70 percent of the awards have been settlements in cases in which program officials did not find sufficient evidence that vaccines were at fault.”
The court’s rulings can also, at times, create confusion about whether vaccines are responsible for certain illnesses and injuries, and even give ammunition to the anti-vaccine movement. In one controversial case reported on by the science blog Respectful Insolence, the court awarded a judgment to a family who claimed a vaccine had caused their baby to die of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). In his ruling, Special Master Thomas Gowen wrote that vaccines the baby received “actually caused or substantially contributed to his death from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.” He added, though, “I have not concluded that vaccines present a substantial risk of SIDS. In fact, the evidence is to the contrary. The vast majority of vaccine recipients do not succumb to SIDS.” (Again, it’s worth pointing out here that the standards of evidence in vaccine court are different than civil court, which is part of what allowed for such a ruling.) The case is still cited by anti-vaccine organizations like Children’s Health Defense to falsely claim that vaccines plausibly and routinely cause SIDS.
Another infamous case is that of Hannah Poling, who was 9 years old in 2008 when her parents announced that the vaccine court had granted them compensation after they claimed a round of vaccines in 2000 had triggered symptoms consistent with autism. “[T]he results in this case may well signify a landmark decision with children developing autism following vaccinations,” her father Jon said at a press conference. To this day, the Poling case is used by vaccine opponents to claim that vaccines can plausibly cause autism, and that the government has admitted it.
But Poling, according to case documents, had a rare mitochondrial enzyme deficiency, which the court seems to have condeded could have led to encephalopathy — a disease that damages the functioning of the brain — which was then exacerbated when she received five vaccines in one day.
Offit and other public health experts criticized the ruling at the time, saying its lack of clarity was another blow to public trust. “Going forward, the VICP should more rigorously define the criteria by which it determines that a vaccine has caused harm,” Offit wrote in a paper in the New England Journal of Medicine. “Otherwise, the message that the program inadvertently sends to the public will further erode confidence in vaccines and hurt those whom it is charged with protecting.”
“The courts are not a way to settle scientific disputes,” Offit told VICE News. “There’s situations where there isn’t clear data about whether a vaccine caused a particular problem. But if it didn’t exist and these things were open to civil litigation again, we’d be back to where we were in the mid 1980s.”
The existence of the court isn’t proof that vaccines are broadly unsafe. Vaccines are considered overwhelmingly safe and effective by virtually every major health body on earth, and data from the program show it is exceedingly rare for someone to even claim they were injured by a vaccine. Vaccine injuries are inevitable, though, given the millions of doses administered every year. The fact that a very small percentage of people to whom they are administered will suffer adverse effects is, in essence, a mathematical function of the fact that we as a society choose to use vaccines to prevent illnesses that would otherwise consign millions of people to needless suffering and death.
An attorney who makes her living suing on behalf of vaccine-injured people agrees that such injuries are, overall, rare.
“You have to have a lot of factors occur for a vaccine injury to occur,” Renee Gentry told VICE News. “The vaccine, genetic predisposition, genetic makeup, a person’s immune system on that day: It all comes together to create a perfect storm of conditions that cause these rare reactions.” Gentry is the director of the Vaccine Injury Litigation Clinic, a program at the law school at George Washington University. She frequently has to clarify, as she puts it, “that I’m not anti-vaccine.”
“The vaccine, genetic predisposition, genetic makeup, a person’s immune system on that day: It all comes together to create a perfect storm of conditions that cause these rare reactions.”
Gentry and the law students she oversees represent litigants in the vaccine injury court. One of the more common ones injuries she sees is in adults, and it’s called SIRVA, a shoulder injury related to vaccine administration, which happens when the vaccine is given incorrectly, too high on a person’s arm.
Gentry says she’s often criticized by vaccine advocates for being “anti-science,” she said, or personally anti-vaccine. And, she acknowledges, “These are incredibly difficult cases to prove. There’s not a lot of research being done outside of what’s sponsored by pharma or the government and both of those have a particular point of view. And because vaccine injuries are rare, you don’t get big epidemiological studies.”
The court, Gentry added, is, in her view, a difficult place to win a case, particularly if someone is trying to claim that a vaccine caused a new injury not extensively documented in the medical literature. “These are difficult cases to win no matter who it is,” she said. “This is a conservative court. They don’t like to say new things cause injury. It’s difficult for petitioners to win.”
Vaccine critics have complained that the court is fundamentally unfair or weighted on the side of vaccine manufacturers, which is part of their ire against it. There’s also the fact that they haven’t succeeded in using the court to push specific false claims—that vaccines cause autism, for instance, or contain lethal levels of mercury. A massive ruling known as the Omnibus Autism Proceeding, which weighed an exhaustive amount of evidence, concluded that there were no credible scientific theories being presented to the court that could prove a causal link between vaccines and autism.
But if the 1986 law is repealed, all of that could go out the window: the precedent set by previous cases, the weight theoretically given to expert opinions, the entire framework set up to make sure that individual families get some amount of compensation while the vaccine system itself stays fundamentally sound. Instead, in jury trials, individual drug companies could once again be sued for potentially staggering amounts of money. Civil juries can be persuaded of things that specialized courts cannot – and that seems to be, more or less, the point.
“For the vaccine-injured, NVICP is their only recourse,” Children’s Health Defense has written in one of dozens of articles, book excerpts and interviews attacking how the vaccine court functions. “This must change.”
It’s clear why people like Mikovits, Kennedy, and Wakefield consider the vaccine court to be one of their prime opponents. What’s less clear is whether Mikovits is, as she claimed, still secretly working on cases in the court. (Mikovits didn’t directly respond to requests for comment from VICE News.) In her Autism One talk, Mikovits listed a series of lawyers she said would help people looking to sue over a vaccine injury, some of whom she’s acted as an expert witness for in the past; it wasn’t clear if she was implying that she works with them now.
In either case, Mikovits has not offered her audiences a totally complete accounting of why she’s no longer submitting expert testimony under her own name. Not entirely outlined, for instance, is the fact in that multiple special masters found her scientific work sloppy and her theories not credible. She has, instead, claimed that it’s yet another conspiracy. In Plague of Corruption, she implied that she and Ruscetti both think what’s at work here are “shenanigans,” as she put it.
“Let me tell you what Frank thinks about these shenanigans,” Mikovits wrote, of one particular decision, one that called her work “frankly poor.” “He thinks that destroying the messengers is an old, cheap trick used to destroy the message.”
The case record is a little more precise. In a 2018 case first reported on by independent science website For Better Science, the special master noted that Mikovits and Ruscetti were requesting more than $30,000 in fees from the court, though the supporting affidavits they submitted provided “very little information” about the nature of the work they’d done. Additionally, wrote Special Master Christian J. Moran, what Mikovits did produce wasn’t great.
“Ms. Mikovits’ work in this case was, frankly, poor,” Moran wrote. “Her reports were riddled with errors, exaggerations, and false statements.”
“Ms. Mikovits’ work in this case was, frankly, poor. Her reports were riddled with errors, exaggerations, and false statements.”
And a decision from December 2019, written by Special Master Brian H. Corcoran, laid out in withering detail why he no longer wanted to see Mikovits in his court. Corcoran is the judge who called Mikovits’ testimony “garbled” and “confusing.” His ruling pointed out that Mikovits had had to retract her XMRV paper, a major blow to her professional reputation, and was accused of stealing notebooks from the lab where she was formerly employed, a charge that was ultimately dismissed. She had also, he wrote, called her own credibility into question by making relentless anti-vaccine statements in public.
“In addition to her lackluster professional reputation (which inherently tainted the overall reliability of her opinion), Dr. Mikovits’s personal opinions relating to vaccines and the Vaccine Program are also reason to question her credibility,” Cocoran wrote. “She has publicly espoused opinions disputing the safety and value of vaccines and has implied a link between vaccines and autism. She has also collaborated with an anti-vaccination publisher and co-author, and regularly speaks at the “AutismOne” conference. Additionally, she has supported a ban on all HPV vaccines and attacked the Vaccine Program as biased.”
Corcoran added that, having reviewed her expert reports and heard her testimony, “I find that her work was woefully inadequate in this matter and her testimony not credible.” But he didn’t entirely refuse to pay her. Mikovits had requested $38,325.00 from the court, which Corcoran reduced by to cover only the money she spent on airfare and hotels while working on the case.
“I will allow costs associated with Dr. Mikovits’s airfare and hotel—an amount totaling $1,649.06—to be reimbursed in full,” Corcoran wrote. “Though Counsel is on notice that I will not entertain Dr. Mikovits as an expert in the future.”
Mikovits didn’t respond directly to several emails from VICE News; she did, however, apparently send an email to Frank Ruscetti, her former collaborator and frequent co-researcher, that Ruscetti said he’d been given permission to forward to us.
Reached for comment, Ruscetti himself accused VICE News of “an obvious attempt to demean our academic credentials,” because he had mistakenly been referred to as “Mr.” instead of “Dr” in an email from VICE, and “Ms.” had been used for Mikovits. He added that he questioned whether the rest of the story was accurate, writing, “Unless I see the whole article, I can not comment or have my name associated with it.”
It’s forbidden at every reputable news outlet in the United States to show an article to a subject prior to publication; VICE News declined to agree to these terms. Ruscetti added in a followup email: “After careful consideration of your request, you do not have my permission to quote me. The fact that my work appears in the public, does not mean I am a public figure. I have never commented on the drivel that besmirches my work. We will let the legal system decide if my name and work can be misused or not.” (None of our emails were off the record or on background, terms governing the conditions on which information can be used and attributed that are negotiated between sources and reporters. VICE News did not agree to his apparent request to retroactively withdraw consent to be quoted.)
“I have never commented on the drivel that besmirches my work.”
It’s still unclear whether Ruscetti and Mikovits are still working together through their former shared business, MAR Consulting Inc. In our emails, VICE News asked Ruscetti whether the business is still active, whether he is still providing expert medical testimony in federal court or anywhere else, and whether he had any comment on Mikovits’ claim that she and Ruscetti are working with lawyers and “ghostwriting” materials to be submitted to the vaccine court. He responded, somewhat mysteriously, “Yes and yes.” He did not respond to follow-up emails requesting further clarification.
Mikovits did not respond to emails from VICE News about whether the email forwarded by Ruscetti had been written by her. The email began, “I am sorry that Ms Merlan is writing a story about me that extensively discusses our expert testimony in vaccine court without simply referring to my book Plague of Corruption.” The author of the email added: “Ms Merlen is not Accurate in the email she wrote to you where she explained the ‘GhostWriting.’ We are certainly doing cases in our own names but now in order to make certain their clients don’t get hurt further by Special Master Moran we simply do the research for those attorneys and don’t ‘testify.’ (Written signed reports are considered expert testimony” in NVICP).” [Sic through]
It’s unclear which attorneys Mikovits is doing research for, or what form that research takes, or if any of it appears in court documents submitted in vaccine court.
In the same email, the author, whom Ruscetti claims to be Mikovits, says that they had responded to VICE News several weeks prior, stating that we had permission to “quote directly from from Chapter 8 p 118-122 of our book Plague of Corruption which are referenced directly to the court documents.”
VICE News never received any such email from Mikovits. However, the sections from Plague of Corruption referenced in the email were also included in the email forwarded by Ruscetti, and do indeed shed some light on her claims about vaccine court made at Autism One.
In the book, Mikovits writes that she and Ruscetti founded MAR Consulting in 2015. In documents about their purported credentials that they submitted the first time they testified in the court, the pair wrote, “Drs. Mikovits and Ruscetti changed the practice of immunology and medicine arguably more than any two individuals since 1980,” claiming, “[W]e changed the paradigm of treatments not only for HIV/AIDS but also for cancer, autoimmune disease and neuroimmune disease.”
That glowing assessment is not shared by many of Mikovits’ peers; in a recent commentary published in the journal AIDS Research and Human Retroviruses, two professors who specialize in virology and microbiology wrote that Mikovits has a “toxic legacy” and refer to her as ” a serial scientific fantasist who has consistently made unsubstantiated claims about mouse retroviruses as the cause of a number of human diseases.” (It’s absolutely true, though, that Ruscetti, with a team of other researchers, discovered some important information on retroviruses in the early 1980s, including finding what the National Cancer Institute calls “the first human cancer-causing retrovirus, HTLV-1.”)
Two professors who specialize in virology and microbiology wrote that Mikovits has a “toxic legacy.”
In the book excerpts included in the email, Mikovits also specifically attacked the decision issued by Special Master Christian J. Moran, which criticized her work and her credentials.
“Apparently,” she wrote, “my twenty years of government research experience, including the world-renowned Lab of Anti-Viral Drug Mechanisms at the National Cancer Institute, mean next to nothing. The same could be said of my research, which changed the treatment of HIV-AIDS, saving the lives of millions. Special Master Moran also trashes the reputation of Frank, one of the greatest scientists to ever work in the field of cancer and who co-founded the discipline of human retrovirology. What does Special Master Moran make of the fact that Frank also signed the report in this case? Apparently nothing. Does Special Master Moran believe I spiked Frank’s morning coffee as we were working together, then in his dazed state I got him to sign the report?”
The author of the email added, in an aside apparently directed to me and not part of her book excerpts, “When Frank and I continued to work on several additional cases for the courts knowing full well we would not get paid a fair wage, Special Master Moran next Threatened [sic] attorneys that if they hired MARC Inc not only would the special Master Moran guarantee the client would lose, but NOBODY would get paid. He carried out that threat in the Case of CFS developed from Flu [sic] vaccine. A case we and the attorneys worked on Since [sic] April 2015.”
Mikovits did not respond to an email seeking clarification on several of her claims.
Mikovits isn’t the only person who’s submitted dubious expert testimony. Several luminaries in the anti-vaccine world have tried to use vaccine court cases to promote scientifically questionable ideas. Yehuda Shoenfeld is an Israeli immunologist and longtime critic of vaccines; court records show that he acted as an expert witness in several cases, sometimes promoting a syndrome he called ASIA. But several other studies have questioned whether ASIA exists at all. A 2017 study in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology found no evidence for Shoenfeld’s pet theory that vaccine adjuvants containing aluminum are the cause of autoimmune diseases.
“He’s made up a syndrome,” Paul Offit told VICE News, bluntly. “He was able to promote it by giving it an acronym.”
David and Mark Geier have also testified in vaccine court; they were a father-son team who promoted the entirely false theory that mercury in vaccines caused autism. As Science reported, the pair “established an unapproved treatment that involved daily injections of leuprolide (Lupron, a drug used to treat prostate cancer and to chemically castrate sex offenders).” Mark Geier’s medical license was revoked in 2012, although, in a related case, he successfully sued Maryland state regulators for breaching his medical privacy in 2018. (Geier was accused of improperly prescribing drugs for himself and his family; Geier sued the Maryland Board of Physicians for posting the names of the drugs online in their revocation order.)
In several cases, Mikovits even presented expert testimony for litigants in the Vaccine Injury Litigation Clinic, the very reputable program Renee Gentry now directs. Gentry says that Mikovits and Ruscetti largely worked with her former co-director, Clifford Shoemaker.
“Cliff handled most of the contact with them and the expert reports,” Gentry told VICE News. “I edited a few letters. I was primarily editing them for clarity.”
Shoemaker was a longtime vaccine court attorney; an Associated Press story called him one of the most “prolific filers” in vaccine court. Shoemaker, it’s noted in the story, made a substantial amount of money in vaccine court, whether the cases were won or lost for his clients: more than $11 million in fees and expenses, including $4.1 million in cases he lost. The story also notes that Shoemaker billed for a number of unusual expenses:
Shoemaker once submitted a bill that the special master said could “easily exceed the hours available in a day.” Other special masters said he would submit “unreasonable or duplicative” hours, then say the entries were in error. His payments would be reduced, but AP found no evidence he had been sanctioned.In one early case, he tried to charge the court for repairs to his car, which broke down on the way to a hearing. In another, Shoemaker billed for travel to Paris and Italy, including a stay at a Ritz Carlton.Shoemaker said his billing problems were honest mistakes and that he now has a better tracking system. He said the European trip was necessary to meet with experts.“I’m not ashamed of anything that was done at that time,” he said.
But it wouldn’t be possible for Mikovits to still be working with Shoemaker, though he was one of the attorneys she mentioned in her talk at Autism One. That’s because he surrendered his law license in February 2020 after he was convicted of embezzling money from an 86-year-old client with dementia, for whom he had power of attorney. Shoemaker pleaded no contest to the charges; in an affidavit to the Virginia State Bar, he wrote, “”It was never my intention to permanently retain the monies taken from [the widow’s] insurance proceeds (with the exception of legal fees) but I acknowledge that taking those monies constituted a misappropriation … in violation of my fiduciary duties.”
(Reached by VICE News at his office, Shoemaker declined to comment. Renee Gentry told VICE News, “He’s no longer the attorney of record in any case. I had taken over all the active cases prior to any action” taken by the Virginia Bar against him.)
Mikovits doesn’t tend to mention any of this unflattering background in her recent talks, or when describing her many profitable years as an expert witness. Instead, she’s insisted that the court is not just corrupt, but outright evil. And these days, she said in her remarks during The Truth About Vaccine 2020, she’s specially focused on proving that the Gardasil and flu vaccines are dangerous. “They’re so, so toxic,” she said.
There’s another possible reason Mikovits and other vaccine critics are focused on Gardasil: It’s one of the only vaccines where there’s a case against it outside of vaccine court. Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s organization, Children’s Health Defense, has been heavily publicizing a lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court that attempts to sue Merck, Gardasil’s manufacturer, for fraud.
The suit is ongoing, and there are significant signs that the same people hope to follow the same playbook for any potential COVID-19 vaccine. Vaccine opponents have claimed that a coronavirus vaccine is being rushed to market, standard safety protocols ignored, and that vaccine manufacturers stand to make millions from it. (There are, to be sure, genuine concerns that a COVID vaccine could be rushed, and many of the world’s leading public health experts are trying to make sure that doesn’t happen. Meanwhile, news of successful ongoing trials for a vaccine are indeed causing some drug companies’ stocks to soar.)
In the meantime, Mikovits and her fellow travelers continue to insist that all vaccines are unsafe, and that the 1986 law should be repealed. She’s also said there’s no need for a COVID vaccine to begin with. “If many people are walking around with antibodies… As with SARS and MERs no vaccine has been developed that didn’t kill many more people.”
That’s absolutely not true. But Mikovits’ career is a testament to the length that untrue statements can travel before they’re stopped, and the amount of money that can be made and fame that can be won while issuing them. Even as her outrageous claims and checkered career are fact-checked, Plandemic continues to circulate. As Buzzfeed News noted, the film has been translated into 12 languages and is currently making an alarming viral world tour—much like COVID-19 itself.
Mikovits herself continues her own tour, through fringe conferences, viral videos, and dubious “natural health” sites. On June 4, Mikovits celebrated as her book hit #2 on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list. “This,” she exulted, “is the beginning of Something Great for all of us!”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misattributed the authorship of a piece on the website For Better Science.
Follow Anna Merlan on Twitter.